Reporting on sexual assault

Media backgrounder – February 2012

Interviewing victim/survivors

Interviewing victim/survivors provides a key source of accurate information on their experiences and allows their voices to be heard.

While the interview process can be a positive experience for victim/survivors, there is also potential for the interview to result in further emotional trauma as they re-live painful experiences.

The following guidelines will assist in ensuring that interviews with victim/survivors minimise the potential for further harm or emotional trauma:

  • Journalists have a legal and ethical responsibility to not report on a case if it may interfere with the court process.
  • The rights to privacy, anonymity, and confidentiality are of utmost importance when interviewing victim/survivors on their experiences of sexual assault.
  • This is particularly so for people discussing intimate partner abuse, who often fear the perpetrator will carry out revenge attacks, as a consequence of speaking out.
  • It is important that you let the victim/survivor know that if they decide to take a public stand that they may be subject to considerable media interest including being asked to comment on other sexual assaults and matters in relation to sexual assault.
  • The victim/survivor should be afforded as much control over the interview process as possible.
  • Allow the victim/survivor to select the time and location of the interview.
  • Consider the potential need for the victim/survivor to choose whether a female or male member of staff interviews them.
  • Allow the victim/survivor to refuse to answer questions if they don't feel comfortable doing so.
  • Allow the victim/survivor to cease the interview if they no longer feel comfortable continuing.
  • Let the discussion be guided by what the victim/survivor wishes to raise about their experiences, rather than attempting to impose or control the subject matter.
  • It might be worthwhile to foreshadow likely questions and focus of the interview with the victim/survivor prior to the interview.
  • The interview process can be - although not always - a traumatising experience for victim/survivors.
  • Be aware of the possibility for emotional distress to occur and have information and access to sexual assault counselling services available.
  • Be aware of the possibility that the victim/survivor may become distressed sometime after the interview. Ensure you leave them with follow-up support options.
  • At the beginning of the interview offer victim/survivors a formal debriefing session and access to free counselling by a sexual assault counselling service.
  • Provide victim/survivors with a copy of any interview transcripts and where practical give them the opportunity to read and provide feedback on any story based on their experience before it is published. This will ensure that their experience is represented fairly and accurately.
  • Let the victim/survivor know that family and friends who see the story may be able to recognise or identify them, even if the victim/survivor is anonymous in the report.
  • Let the victim/survivor know when the story will run and if any changes are made to the run date or the content of the story. It is very important to keep victim/survivors informed.
  • Let the victim/survivor know that people may try and contact them if they are named. Discuss the need for victim/survivors to remove or limit access to publically available information on sites such as Facebook and LinkedIn, particularly sites that list the victim/survivor’s phone number or other personal contact details. The journalist should do a Google search to identify what information about the victim/survivor is publically available before the story is published.
  • Explain to victim/survivors about the processes involved in producing and publishing a story, so that this is demystified for them as much as possible. This should also include information about whether and when they should expect the journalist to be in contact with them.

Privacy of victim/survivors

The identity of victim/survivors should not be disclosed without explicit permission from the victim/survivor.

Academic and government researchers are bound by ethical obligations, which may prevent them from disclosing the identity of participants in their research projects. Journalists should rely on their own sources to get in touch with victim/survivors.

Self-care for journalists

Interviewing victim/survivors can often result in emotional distress for the interviewer, an experience referred to as "vicarious trauma".

See "Ripple effects" of sexual assault (ACSSA Issues No. 7) for more information on vicarious trauma.

People involved in interviewing victim/survivors should also be provided with access to formal debriefing and counselling where required and may choose to discuss this with their employer.

The National 1800 737 732 Sexual Assault Domestic Violence telephone service can also provide debriefing when workplace solutions may not be immediately accessible.